Scientists Finally Identify The Mystery Animal That Baffled Charles Darwin

In the year 1834 Charles Darwin discovered the fossils of what appeared to be a strange ice age animal during his famous expeditions on board the HMS Beagle. However, there were a limited number of bones to be studied so he was not able to draw any conclusions at the time.

Years passed, and the fossils were transferred over to a distinguished palaeontologist by the name of Richard Owen who was tasked with figuring out what group of animal the specimen belonged to. Owen was likewise unable to to solve the mystery.

The mystery remained unsolved for over 180 years. But a recent study has reconstructed the DNA of the mystery creature and was finally able to map its place on the evolutionary tree. The research, which was conducted by the University of Potsdam, was published in the journal Nature Communications.

The animal was discovered to be a Macrauchenia patachonica. The mammal is understood to have been extinct some 10-20,000 years ago in the region of South America. That is the last known period of which there was records of the fossil.

The research has found that it’s long-necked, long-limbed, and resembled a cross between a camel, a giraffe, and an elephant. Though it has these similarities, the M. patachonica does not have any living descendants, which is the reason why its identification was difficult.

The study that was conducted involved gathering bone samples which were collected from across South America to derive the mitochondrial DNA from its ancient collagen protein.

The research team found that it was a member of a lineage that branched off of Perissodactyla, a group of odd-toed ungulates that include horses, rhinos, and tapirs. These two groups are believed to have split approximately 66 million years ago.

According to Michi Hofreiter, primary author and paleogenomics expert at the University of Potsdam, “We now have found a place in the tree of life for this group, so we can now also better explain how the peculiarities of these animals evolved”.

The task of sequencing the DNA of the creature was quite the achievement. This is because DNA has a tendency to deteriorate over time, particularly when it is kept in a warm climate for thousands of years.

The researchers had to reconstruct the DNA from short sequences of genetic data from various individuals. The process was made more difficult give that the animal does not have a living relations.

Hofreiter states, “Paleontologists until modern days have been confused by these animals […] Reconstructing a reliable sequence from these short DNA segments with only distant relatives, that’s a challenge”. He explains that these findings were made possible because of improvements to instrumentation and software.

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